Legendary Laker and Newport resident Kobe Bryant, his daughter and OCC coach among 9 killed in copter crash
Kobe Bryant, 41, the legendary basketball star who spent 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, was killed with eight other people, including his daughter Gianna, 13, when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed and burst into flames Sunday morning amid foggy conditions in the hills above Calabasas, sources told the Los Angeles Times.
Bryant’s death stunned Los Angeles and the sports world, which mourned one of basketball’s greatest players. Sources said the helicopter took off from Orange County. Bryant lived in Newport Beach, and Gianna attended Harbor Day School, a private K-8 campus in Corona del Mar.
NBA officials confirmed that Bryant and his daughter were on the aircraft. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said nine people were on the helicopter — a pilot and eight passengers — and that all had died. He said he would not confirm who had died until all the next of kin had been notified.
Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa confirmed that baseball coach John Altobelli was among those killed. As a mentor and coach for 27 years, he helped students earn scholarships to play at four-year colleges and treated players like family, the college said in a statement.
“Coach Altobelli was a giant on our campus — a beloved teacher, coach, colleague and friend. This is a tremendous loss for our campus community,” OCC President Angelica Suarez said in a statement.
Altobelli’s wife, Keri, and 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, who played on a club basketball team with Bryant’s daughter, also were among the victims, according to his family.
Nearly 300 players and coaches from the OCC baseball program’s history gathered at the baseball field Sunday to honor Altobelli, 56, and his family, ESPN reported. Altobelli had another daughter, Lexi, a high school junior, and a son, J.J., a scout for the Boston Red Sox.
Bryant coached his daughter’s club team and would take the players to watch professional teams.
Christina Mauser, Bryant’s top assistant coach on the travel team, also was killed in the crash, according to her husband, Matt. From 2007 to 2018, she worked at Harbor Day School, where she and her husband coached the eighth-grade girls basketball team to its first championship. She also led clinics for WNBA players at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks.
“My kids and I are devastated,” Matt Mauser, singer for Orange County band Tijuana Dogs, wrote on Facebook. “We lost our beautiful wife and mom today in a helicopter crash.”
Harbor Day School issued a statement Sunday saying it was “devastated by the news” of the crash.
“We are mourning the loss of members of our community,” the statement read. “Our first priority is the well-being of our students. ... We will ensure that our support team is made available to assist and counsel our students.”
In an updated statement Monday, the school said it opened Sunday night for eighth-graders to “support each other and receive support from their advisors, teachers and mental health professionals, including our school psychologist.”
The school said it provided a separate assembly Monday for parents, led by a local psychologist, about how to talk about death and grieving with their children.
Other victims identified by family and friends were mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester.
Todd Schmidt, former principal of Harbor View Elementary School in Corona del Mar, shared the news of their deaths on Facebook. Payton attended Harbor View from kindergarten through fifth grade, according to posts on Facebook. Most recently she was a student at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano.
“May you both rest in peace and know the deep impact you had on our lives. You will be so sorely missed,” Schmidt wrote.
The pilot was identified as Ara Zobayan, whom friends described as a popular instructor for aspiring helicopter pilots, KTLA reported.
Bryant was scheduled to coach Sunday in a game at the Mamba Sports Academy and was en route when the helicopter crashed. A tournament called the Mamba Cup features travel teams of boys and girls in fourth through eighth grade.
The crash occurred shortly before 10 a.m. near Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street in Calabasas. Authorities received a 911 call at 9:47 a.m., and firefighters arrived to find that the crash had ignited a quarter-acre brush fire in steep terrain, said L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby. Firefighter-paramedics were hoisted into the crash zone early on to look for survivors, Osby said.
Jerry Kocharian was standing outside the Church in the Canyon drinking coffee when he heard a helicopter unusually low struggling overhead. “It [didn’t] sound right and it was real low. I saw it falling and spluttering. But it was hard to make out as it was so foggy,” Kocharian said. The helicopter vanished into a cloud of fog and then there was a boom.
“There was a big fireball,” he said. “No one could survive that.”
Allen Kenitzer, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman, said his agency and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.
The helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76B built in 1991, departed John Wayne Airport at 9:06 a.m. Sunday, according to publicly available flight records. The helicopter passed over Boyle Heights, near Dodger Stadium, and circled over Glendale during the flight.
The fog was severe enough Sunday morning that the Los Angeles Police Department’s Air Support Division grounded its helicopters and didn’t fly until later in the afternoon, according to department spokesman Josh Rubenstein.
“The weather situation did not meet our minimum standards for flying,” Rubenstein said. The fog “was enough that we were not flying.” LAPD’s flight minimums are two miles of visibility and an 800-foot cloud ceiling, he said.
Kobe Bryant, Lakers legend, died when the helicopter he was traveling in crashed into a hillside in Calabasas shortly before 10 a.m.
The helicopter was registered to Fillmore-based Island Express Holding Corp., according to the California secretary of state’s business database. The NTSB database does not show any previous incidents or accidents for the aircraft.
The helicopter’s manufacturer, Sikorsky, said in a tweet: “We extend our sincerest condolences to all those affected by today’s Sikorsky S-76B accident in Calabasas, California. We have been in contact with the NTSB and stand ready to provide assistance and support to the investigative authorities and our customer.”
Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for Island Express Helicopters who used to fly Bryant in the chopper, said the crash was more likely caused by bad weather than engine or mechanical issues. “The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft — it just doesn’t happen,” he said.
Judging from a public record of the flight path and the wide debris field, Deetz said it appears the helicopter was traveling very fast at the time of impact, about 160 mph. After a 40-minute flight, Deetz added, the craft would have had about 800 pounds of fuel on board. “That’s enough to start a pretty big fire,” he said.
“It is with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to Newport Beach resident and international sports legend Kobe Bryant,” the city of Newport Beach said in a statement Sunday. “Our prayers are with his family, friends, colleagues and neighbors as our community grieves this sudden and devastating loss. Kobe leaves behind an unmatched legacy of excellence, on and off the court, that will not be forgotten.”
“He was always polite with staff and customers,” said Donna Hisey, a former manager of a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Corona del Mar that Bryant visited frequently. “He always giggled when I made jokes with him. I’ll always remember his smile.
“He would come in every Saturday and order two drinks with caffeine. One Saturday I motioned to him, ‘The usual?’ He replied, ‘One decaf.’ I knew his wife was expecting, but I told him I wouldn’t tell anyone. He appreciated it.”
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement that “Kobe Bryant was a giant who inspired, amazed and thrilled people everywhere with his incomparable skill on the court — and awed us with his intellect and humility as a father, husband, creative genius, and ambassador for the game he loved. He will live forever in the heart of Los Angeles and will be remembered through the ages as one of our greatest heroes.”
Across Southern California, public figures and fans alike mourned the basketball star Sunday.
“Particularly when he was young, to be a part of his life and to watch his career grow, watch him grow, this is one of the most tragic days of my life,” said fellow Lakers legend Jerry West, 81. West was the general manager for the Lakers in 1996 and maneuvered Bryant’s immediate trade to the Lakers when he was drafted.
“I know somewhere along the way I guess I’ll come to grips with it,” West said. “But now I have all these different emotions regarding him. The things I watched him do on the basketball court, but more importantly he was going to make a difference off the court, and he was making a difference off the court. It’s so unexplainable. This is going to take a long time for me.”
It was a sad and surreal scene inside Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles around noon Sunday, where Grammy Awards dress rehearsal was taking place as word of Bryant’s death swept through the arena. Crews worked quickly to move Kobe’s rafter jerseys side by side, and masked the other retired jerseys with curtains. By 1 p.m. the switch had been made. No. 8 and No. 24 were side by side, illuminated by floodlights.
News of the crash dominated the rehearsal. Ariana Grande had just finished a lavish performance, and Billie Eilish was about to perform an acoustic song with her brother. But all eyes were on the jerseys at the other end of the floor, as staff and observers watched in disbelief.
At the Fullerton Mexican restaurant El Camino Real, the staff was “really sad,” said manager Rodolfo Garcia. Bryant patronized the restaurant for many years with his wife, Vanessa, a Fullerton native. If he couldn’t visit in person, Bryant would have friends get big orders to take back to his Newport Coast mansion.
“He liked the carnitas and flan,” Garcia said. “He loved this place because people treated him like a normal person. Kobe would just stand in line, like anyone else. He’d tell us, ‘Don’t treat me like a star; I’m just a customer here.”
“Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,” former President Barack Obama tweeted. “To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents. Michelle and I send love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day.”
Bryant was born in Philadelphia. His father, Joe, played eight NBA seasons in the ‘70s and ‘80s for the Philadelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers and, in his last stop, the Houston Rockets under then-coach Del Harris. A light-hearted, 6-10 string bean who went by his Philadelphia playground nickname, “Jellybean,” Joe Bryant played college ball at La Salle and married Pam Cox, the sister of a starting guard at Villanova. They named their first son Kobe, after the city in Japan.
Bryant excelled at Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa., near Philadelphia, winning numerous national awards as a senior before announcing his intention to skip college and enter the NBA draft. He was selected 13th overall by Charlotte in 1996, but the Lakers had already worked out a deal with the Hornets to acquire Bryant before his selection. Bryant impressed West during a pre-draft workout session in Los Angeles. Less than three weeks later, the Lakers traded starting center Vlade Divac to the Hornets in exchange for Bryant’s rights. Bryant, whose favorite team growing up was the Lakers, had to have his parents co-sign his NBA contract because he was 17 years old.
The 6-foot-6 guard made his pro debut in the 1996-97 season opener against Minnesota; at the time he was the youngest player ever to appear in an NBA game. He started in only a handful of games during his rookie season, coming off the bench in support of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. However, coach Del Harris played him more as the season progressed, allowing Bryant to showcase the skills that made him a top candidate for rookie of the year. Those skills were also on display when Bryant won the 1997 NBA slam dunk competition.
Bryant continued to improve during his sophomore season in the league, averaging 15.4 points per game. However, his breakout came in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season when he started in all 50 games after the Lakers traded away Van Exel and Jones.
Bryant and leading scorer Shaquille O’Neal quickly morphed into one of the most lethal scoring and defensive combinations in the league. Together, with coach Phil Jackson guiding them, they led the Lakers to three consecutive championships (2000-02) as Bryant began to cement his place as the game’s top player.
Despite coming together to win some of the most closely fought playoff series in Lakers history, friction started to develop between Bryant and O’Neal. Tension between the two stars continued to build during the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons as the Lakers failed to capitalize on their status as top contenders for the NBA title. Making matters worse, Bryant was arrested in July 2003 on allegations of sexual assault.
The charges were eventually dropped, but Bryant’s reputation took a hit and he settled a civil lawsuit with the alleged victim. In exchange for not testifying in the criminal case, the accuser negotiated an apology letter from Bryant that read, in part, “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual ... I now understand how she sincerely feels that she did not consent.”
After the Lakers lost to Detroit in the NBA Finals with a star-studded team that included Karl Malone and Gary Payton, O’Neal was traded to Miami and Jackson’s coaching contract was not renewed. As the team’s undisputed leader, Bryant signed a seven-year contract to remain with the team.
Bryant summed up the tensions between him and O’Neal after the Lakers won the NBA title in 2009: “We’re great as individuals, but ... it’s probably the first dynamic duo that had two alpha males on one team. We managed to make it work for three championships.”
Bryant posted some of the best offensive numbers of his career over the next three seasons, but the team struggled, failing to make the playoffs in 2005 before suffering consecutive first-round defeats to Phoenix in 2006 and 2007. Jackson returned to the team for the 2005-06 season, and Bryant went on to lead the league in scoring that season with a career-best 35.4 average. He scored 40 points or more in 27 games and became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1964 to finish with 45 points or more in four consecutive games.
His biggest single-game achievement came Jan. 22, 2006, against Toronto when he scored a career-high 81 points, the second most in NBA history. Earlier that season, on Dec. 20, 2005, he scored 62 points in 33 minutes through three quarters of a game against Dallas; he had outscored the entire Mavericks team, 62-61, entering the final quarter, in which Bryant did not play. Bryant continued to impress during the 2006-07 season, scoring 50 or more points in a team-record 10 games and averaging 31.6 points a game to capture his second NBA scoring title.
“He is the No. 1 player in the league, by far,” Washington guard Gilbert Arenas said in 2006. “With a player like him, he just wants that challenge. He’s just that fierce competitor. He doesn’t want to get out-showed. He’s the one who everybody’s afraid of.”
Bryant’s 2007-08 NBA MVP season got off to a tumultuous start after he reportedly demanded to be traded. He was reportedly unhappy with Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Jackson.”I would like to be traded,” Bryant said during a radio interview. “Tough as it is to come to that conclusion, there’s no other alternative. It’s rough, man, but I don’t see how you can rebuild that trust. I just don’t know how you can move forward in that type of situation.”
Bryant eventually backtracked on his trade demands and posted perhaps his best all-around season, leading a team re-energized by Pau Gasol’s arrival from Memphis in February 2008 to a first-place finish in the Western Conference. The Lakers embarked on a memorable playoff run before losing to Boston in the Finals. Later that year Bryant went on to win a gold medal with the U.S. team at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.
With Bryant pleased about the direction the team was heading, he guided the Lakers to back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. He was named the NBA Finals MVP both years as the team once again ascended to the top of the NBA.
Ongoing soreness in Bryant’s knee and ankle coupled with the team’s heavy reliance in him played a role in the Lakers’ championship run coming to an end in 2011. Bryant posted his lowest points per game totals since the 2003-04 season as he dealt with the aftereffects of offseason arthroscopic knee surgery. He went on to win his fourth NBA All-Star Game most-valuable-player award but fell short of his ultimate goal of winning a sixth NBA title. Bryant also became the youngest player in NBA history to amass 27,000 career points.
Bryant finished third in league scoring in 2011-12 despite dealing with ongoing knee and ankle issues. In January 2012, he scored at least 40 points in four consecutive games, which included a 48-point effort against the Phoenix Suns.
Following the team’s acquisition of Dwight Howard in August 2012, the Lakers were regarded as a favorite for the NBA title. However, friction between Bryant and Howard started to develop as the team struggled. Despite this, Bryant led the NBA in scoring for much of the first half of the season and surpassed NBA great Wilt Chamberlain for fourth all-time in league scoring. But Bryant’s season came to a disappointing end when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon against the Golden State Warriors on April 10. The injury and subsequent surgery prevented Bryant from playing in the early portion of the 2013-14 season.
Bryant, who signed a two-year, $48.5-million contract extension with the Lakers before the start of the 2013-14 season, did not return from injury until December. He played in only six games before suffering a lateral tibial plateau fracture in his left knee. The injury forced him to miss the remainder of the season as the Lakers limped to a 27-55 record, missing the playoffs for only the second time since Bryant joined the franchise.
He retired from the NBA but began a new career in Hollywood.
In 2018, he won an Oscar along with director Glen Keane for the animated short film “Dear Basketball.”
Just Saturday night, Laker LeBron James passed Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
Times staff writers Gale Holland, Marisa Gerber, Nathan Fenno, Michael DiGiovanna, Chris Erskine, Alex Wigglesworth, Broderick Turner, Cindy Carcamo, Gustavo Arellano and Priscella Vega and Daily Pilot staff members Hillary Davis, David Carrillo, Julia Sclafani and Rob Vardon contributed to this report.
7:12 a.m. Jan. 27, 2020: This article was originally published at 11:48 a.m. Jan. 26 and has been updated with additional information.
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